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Bartram’s legacy: Scholars gather to discuss significance of 18th century botanist, writer, illustrator and philosopher

By Michael Beadle

William Bartram only came through Western North Carolina for a handful of days in the spring of 1775. The record of his travels through Cherokee country (including present-day Highlands, Franklin and the Nantahala Gorge) wouldn’t be published until more than a decade later. By that time, many of his plant discoveries were credited to others.

Even so, his words and illustrations of travels through Western North Carolina and the Southeast remain one of the most compelling early scientific studies of America that would go on to inspire the likes of André Michaux, John James Audubon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and generations of nature writers, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today, this Quaker botanist from Philadelphia is very much a celebrity among hikers, scholars and writers — including a good many visiting and living in Western North Carolina. In addition to Bartram’s botanical discoveries and explorations, he fostered a new kind of naturalist writing with a first-person perspective, scientifically astute and yet lyrical and rhapsodic at times with its classical allusions and sensual observations of nature in all its glory and diversity.

The life and times of this naturalist, writer, illustrator and philosopher has spawned Bartram trails, Bartram gardens, a litany of books on his life and travels, and the nationally recognized Bartram Trail Conference. Here in Western North Carolina, the North Carolina Bartram Trail Society promotes and maintains a 117-mile path that loosely follows Bartram’s route through the region. Western Carolina University’s Heritage Center has a Bartram exhibit this summer and the Highlands Biological Station offers a 30-species Bartram Trail along with its own Bartram exhibit.

Former WCU biology professor Dan Pittillo, who helped start the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, recently joined with others leading Bartram fans for a three-day symposium celebrating all things Bartram at the High Hampton Inn & Country Club. The event, held May 31 through June 2 and organized by the Cashiers Historical Society, brought together scientists, authors, hikers, historians and nature lovers eager to learn more about the man Native Americans dubbed “Puc Puggy” or “the flower hunter.”

Participants of the symposium were taken on a full-day tour of Macon County sites where Bartram passed through in May 1775. The second day, the Highlands Biological Station hosted a morning of guided tours along its extensive garden trail. That was followed by a series of lectures by Brad Sanders, author of the Guide to William Bartram’s Travels; local historian Jane Nardy; Dan Pittillo; Cherokee Historic Preservation Officer Russell Townsend; and WCU anthropology professor Anne Rogers. The final day of the symposium concluded with a hike and additional lectures from Kathryn Braund, president of the Bartram Trail Conference; Joel Fry, curator of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia; and Burt Kornegay, a veteran wilderness guide and head of Slickrock Expeditions.


Seeds and Science

Though William Bartram is viewed by many as the first great American-born naturalist, his father, John, was no slouch himself. The elder Bartram also had an acute interest in plants and their medicinal value. By the early 18th century, John was writing and sending seed samples to wealthy European collectors — a lucrative business at the time. He corresponded with royalty as well as early American figures such as Benjamin Franklin and leading scientists such as Carl Linnaeus, who developed the modern classification system for species. John would eventually serve as the Royal Botanist of the Colonies for the King George III of England.

So it’s no wonder that young William, growing up with copies of Mark Catesby’s plant and animal illustrations and having connections to some of the greatest minds in the world, took to traveling on expeditions with his father — first to the Catskills as a 14-year-old in 1753 and later on to Georgia and Florida from July 1765 to April 1766.

William didn’t fare so well as a businessman — he turned down an offer to apprentice as a printer under Ben Franklin — and other jobs failed including operating a plantation store on the Cape Fear River in eastern North Carolina and farming rice and indigo in Florida. To William’s credit, most early American businesses failed, according to Joel Fry, curator of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia and a scholar on Bartram’s life. William showed much more promise in botany, and his father steered him in that direction. William’s studies at the Philadelphia Academy may have been where he developed his keen gift of illustrating plants and animals, Fry added.

When Bartram came to the South in his 30s, he was already well connected and funded by patrons. Though a Quaker by faith, his gentle nature did not mean giving up on adventure. After dining with dignitaries, he ventured into America’s interior, fending off alligators in Florida (though some say he embellished such stories) and then hiking up rugged Appalachian mountains and enduring violent rainstorms — all with the kind of wonder and earnest spirit that still intrigues his readers. Nature, to Bartram was a magnificent garden of God’s work, and he championed it all — snakes, insects, birds, magnolias, locust trees, buckeyes, river cane, evening primrose, honeysuckle, and more.

“This world,” he wrote in his Travels, “is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures.”

Later advertisements luring European settlers would portray this strange, new world of the South as a paradise of beauty, a “promised Canaan,” abounding with rivers, meadows and majestic peaks.

Bartram’s diary continually remarks at the large and small wonders, the enormous cane breaks, the flowering fire of azaleas in bloom, curious pitcher plants that trap insects, and medicinal plants such as St. John’s wort and Goldenseal. Perhaps one of Bartram’s most famous discoveries came when he and his father found a rare kind of flowering tree growing in Georgia along the Alatamaha River — the Franklinia alatamaha (named after Ben Franklin and the river).

In some cases Bartram was the first to catalog such plants or trees. In other cases, he misidentified them. Still, his descriptions bear an honesty and fascination that joins scientist with poet. In a passage describing an encounter with the large-flowering evening primrose, he writes, “Early one morning, passing along by some old uncultivated fields ... I was struck with surprise at the appearance of a blooming plant, gilded with the richest golden yellow .... [T]he flowers begin to open in the evening, are fully expanded during the night, and are in their beauty next morning, but close and wither before noon. There is a daily profuse succession for many weeks, and one single plant at the same instant presents to view many hundred flowers.”

In perhaps one of the most lyrical sections of his journal through Cherokee country in May 1775, he writes an unforgettable scene of tranquil beauty:

“Proceeding on our return to town, continued through part of this high forest skirting on the meadows ... and having gained its summit, enjoyed a most enchanting view; a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds ... companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busy gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets ... disclosing their beauties to the fluttering breeze, and bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams ....”

No doubt, William Bartram took up his father’s mantle as botanist and explorer, but he eventually surpassed his father’s exploits with many more extensive travels through the Southeast, where his drawings and detailed descriptions of the landscape and Native American culture gave a rare glimpse of what few Europeans and early Americans had never seen.

But with the huge expense of publishing and the lack of presses available in America, it was almost unheard of for Americans at that time to publish, according to Bartram scholar Joel Fry, who is working on a book of Bartram’s letters.

So Bartram’s travels would have to wait even though he had them in manuscript form by 1783. Meanwhile, he suffered a fall from a cypress tree while collecting seeds at his home in Philadelphia. He sprained or broke his ankle, and its subsequent infection took about a year to heal.

When his Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida finally did come out in 1791, it was mildly received in America, but it found critical acclaim in Europe. By that time, other botanists – some even close friends and relatives — had received credit for discovering plants that Bartram had already catalogued. Illustrations, documents, letters and reports were not so easily copied as they are today, so Bartram’s detailed notes, plant specimens and other information gathered over his career might not have even been in his possession.

Kathryn Braund, a history professor at Auburn University and president of the Bartram Trail Conference, jokingly imagines what Bartram might have accomplished if he had all the amenities of today’s modern technology, being armed with L.L. Bean gear, GPS, a digital camera, laptop, FAX machine and wireless Internet connection to send findings overseas to his patron, John Fothergill, the English physician who bankrolled some of Bartram’s travels.

In addition to mailing written reports to scientists and patrons in Europe, Bartram also sent off plants, seeds and various specimens. Single plants might have fetched as much as one British pound — a handsome fee in those days — so it was a tricky business sending “live” cargo that was valued as a small fortune. Seeds were carefully packaged while plants in their dormant stage would be placed inside boxes — tightly encased so as to avoid ship rats — before being hauled away on ships to England, France and other European destinations.


An Uneasy Time

Bartram’s trip through Georgia and the Carolinas in the spring of 1775 may have been for scientific purposes — collecting seeds and identifying plants and animals — but political tensions certainly made any voyage through the colonies dangerous at that time. After all, that same month in April 1775 when Bartram set off from Charleston into what was known as Cherokee country, British forces had already clashed with Colonials at Lexington and Concord, and that May, Patriots in Charlotte would sign the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

According to Braund, Bartram would be carrying papers belonging to John Stuart, a family benefactor and British agent for Indian Affairs in the Southern colonies (and later viewed as a spy trying to enlist Creeks against the Colonials). The botanist would also meet up with George Galphin, who would end up becoming Stuart’s Colonial counterpart making connections and trying to win influence among the tribes in the Southeast.

“So he’s traveling this fine line,” Braund said. “Sides are being taken.”

And within a year’s time, the colonies would declare independence and all-out war against the British. In the summer of 1776, Colonial forces from Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia would march on dozens of Cherokee towns burning and destroying their homes, slaughtering livestock, trampling and burning crops, and killing or taking Cherokee prisoners in an effort to keep the tribe from joining the British during the Revolutionary War. So Bartram was wading through this territory with tribes uneasy about dealing with Colonists as Britain its rebellious subjects.

“It’s like a bubble about to burst,” Braund said.

While Bartram’s commentary lets readers know he was certainly aware of the political dangers he was traveling into, his journal often reads like a man enraptured with his surroundings, coming upon hillsides of fiery azalea in one locale or trying to describe a lovely mountain ridge. His travels have often been romanticized — and echoed in the verses of Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But Bartram was by no means trailblazing paths through unexplored territory, Braund explained.

“Most of the time, he traveled in the company of others,” she said.

Bartram made his way along a network of highways and trading trails that crisscrossed the Southeast. Because of his reputation and eagerness to document the rich flora of the region, he would often meet men eager to point him in the direction of plants, trees and geological highlights in the local habitats, whether they were mysterious mounds made of shells or exotic plants that Europeans had never laid eyes on before.

Indeed, Europeans still had much to learn about these lands, but it was obviously not a “New World” to the indigenous peoples living here. When Bartram visited Cherokee and Creek towns, it was not, as Braund argues, the kind of existence that patronizes Indians as children living a meager existence in the wild. It was merely wilderness to Europeans unfamiliar to the region.

In Cherokee towns of 500 to 600 residents, visitors like Bartram would come upon savvy Native Americans who had been trading with Europeans for two centuries. They were armed with British guns, wore silks from India, had war paint from China, and carried glass beads from Italy and Holland.

“They [were] world-class consumers of these goods,” Braund said.

What is more, the Cherokees learned to cultivate plants introduced from Europe. Crops like peaches, watermelons, and even oranges would be grown and traded throughout the Southeast.

Despite massive European-borne diseases that wiped out huge numbers of indigenous peoples in the Southeast and despite military incursions that left villages and crops decimated before Bartram’s arrival to Cherokee country, the tribe showed an amazing resilience. Cowee, for example, had about 100 dwellings just 14 years after a brutal attack by the British in 1761.

In all, Bartram names some 43 Indian towns during his travels.

Bartram’s 1775 journey into Cherokee country starts in Charleston. He then traveled along the Savannah River, past Augusta, Ga., up to Seneca and Keowee in upstate South Carolina and on to Cowee and present-day Franklin into the Nantahala Gorge. Along the way, he noticed abandoned villages that could have been left vacant as a result of disease or attacks. Originally, Bartram’s plan was to travel into the Overhill Towns (in what is today northeastern Tennessee), but increasing political tensions halted such plans. Instead, later on that summer, he would head south through Georgia and the Gulf Coast region as far west as modern-day Mississippi and Louisiana.

“He knew he had to be out of the Cherokee towns because they were preparing for war,” Braund said.

However, as Cherokee Historic Preservation Officer Russell Townsend pointed out during the Bartram Symposium, the British and American mentality about Cherokees had some key misunderstandings.

For example, the idea that Cherokees were all somehow unified under a monarch or chief was simply not true. In reality, Cherokee towns were autonomous and ruled themselves through a matrilineal clan system of self-governance. Cherokees married into the wife’s clan and justice was served within that clan. Chiefs weren’t so much elected by the people like a democracy; you became a leader by consensus among the townspeople who agreed on an eloquent person speaking for that town, Townsend explained. So when visitors said, “Take me to your leader,” that leader was not some royal prince or king or emperor as historians and explorers have erroneously noted. And there was no Cherokee kingdom or empire.

This different form of government proved to be a source of frustration among the British and later the Americans. For example, when Cherokees from Overhill Towns attacked encroaching settlers, the British retaliated by attacking and burning villages in the Lower Towns in upper South Carolina even though those Cherokees may well have been neutral or totally ignorant of the actions in another Cherokee region. The Cherokee town of Keowee (in South Carolina) could no more speak for Cowee (in North Carolina) than the British could speak for the French, Townsend explained.

Though Bartram only stayed in Cherokee country several days, he was one of the last white men to document the older style of Cherokee housing (the rounded winter houses). Of the few towns he did see — such as Cowee and Nikwasi (present-day Franklin and its surrounding area) — these villages and their log structures, town council houses and rich fields would be decimated just before harvest along with dozens more Lower, Middle, Valley, Overhill and Out towns in the Colonial attacks of 1776.


Bartram’s Legacy

After extensive travels through eight Southern states, Bartram lived out the final years of his life in Philadelphia, where he was visited by leading figures of the day such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, John James Audubon, French naturalist André Michaux, and Alexander Wilson, author of the first significant book of American ornithology.

There is some speculation that Thomas Jefferson urged Bartram to go on the Lewis and Clark expedition, but it was more likely that Bartram was asked to go on the Red River Survey of 1804, which he declined. By then, Bartram was into his 60s and had lost most of his eyesight in one eye after a trip to West Florida. (There was also that bum leg from his tree fall years earlier.)

Nevertheless, Bartram’s work would inspire new generations of scientists. Sir Charles Lyell, a 19th century British geologist, read Bartram’s work became an admirer, even retracing some of Bartram’s journeys. He went on to mentor a young Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution and natural selection. Bartram admirers included physicians, sociologists, ornithologists and entomologists.

Bartram is still inspiring novelists and poets today. In Charles Frazier’s international bestseller Cold Mountain, the main character Inman carries a treasured copy of Bartram’s Travels. Ron Rash, Western Carolina University’s Appalachian studies professor and an award-winning novelist and poet, penned his first novel, One Foot in Eden, with a main character who reads Bartram’s Travels.

At the Highlands Biological Station, a William Bartram exhibit is currently on display, showcasing plants and trees that he found on his treks through the South more than 230 years ago. Some of the 200 plants he and his father discovered and documented have been cultivated along the Highlands research center’s biodiverse garden trail. A sinuous path takes you past Frasers magnolia, oakleaf hydrangea, marshy wonders such as pitcher plants, and delicate beauties such as Dutchman’s pipe and the rare mountain camellia. While most of the species are native to the region, some like the Franklinia are newly planted and carefully watched since they don’t tend to thrive outside their normal habitats.

Anne Rogers, a WCU anthropology professor who specializes in Native American studies and archeology, still marvels at Bartram’s writings ever since learning about him as a graduate student at the University of Georgia in the 1970s. She has researched his work and followed his trail through academia and the outdoors.

“I just have a better understanding of the countryside itself,” she said. “You read that and you really are transported back in time. And you get a vision of the world as it was then.”

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